Book review: Inch Levels

Neil Hegarty’s first novel begins with a flashback to the Donegal countryside in September 1983.

Neil Hegarty

Head of Zeus, €14.99

A couple discovering a child’s body from Inch Levels, reclaimed land on the shoreline of Lough Swilly. 

That Inch Levels the book does not become a crime story but a moving, intimate, and cross-generational portrait of a family left broken by each other as much as external events is as surprising as the secrets that the Jackson siblings and mother keep hidden.

Nominally told through Patrick Johnson as he lies dying of cancer in a hospital across from the school where he used to teach, perspectives shift across various scenes that have defined Patrick, his beloved but victimised sister Margaret, and their cold mother Sarah. He recalls the family going to Kinnagoe Beach in 1960, he aged six, his sister eight. 

He runs past her to the sea in search of buried treasure; she is so enraged he beat her to the water that she seeks to teach him a lesson by potentially drowning him. 

But when Margaret sees Patrick is in trouble with the current she saves him, their relationship “sealed by murderous rage. Sealed, Patrick thought, with a yank.” 

The siblings’ close ties are at the heart of the book. Margaret changed, allowing Patrick in, thinks their mother, but nobody else. “Became, in effect — yes: not unlike her mother.”

Theirs is not a traditional family unit, but intact, muses Patrick; “intact in this case meaning a righteous mother, a humiliated father, a marriage far from simple or mutually satisfying.”

Their father has a stroke four years after the Kinnagoe Beach experience, leaving Sarah to take on the “white man’s burden”. 

Present throughout their childhood is the mysterious Cassie, an orphan sent to Sarah’s father at age 16 in 1937 “by the nuns” to look after the family because Sarah is too young. 

Only she seems to understand why Sarah is so cold towards the children. Sarah, meanwhile, knows Cassie can look after a household, can “mend and bake and keep a place ticking over... But always she needed looking after, in a million other ways to do with people.”

Violence is present throughout Inch Levels, from the death of the girl which opens the novel to the physical and mental abuse of parents and partners. 

Sarah is subjected to lashings of her father’s belt that drive her from the home; her daughter is beaten and blackmailed by her husband Robert, who has a terrible secret and a vindictive plan. She had met Robert while living in London.

On their return to Derry, she feels the family does not accept him because he’s English (the politics of Northern Ireland is a subtle subplot, and include an American soldier being attacked by a drunken local in the early 1940s because “it’s not our war”). 

But Margaret settles, compromises; she realises “she could do better than Robert. That she shouldn’t be with a man like this, a man nobody else would take.” Maybe she does it to spite the family.

In perhaps the most implausible scene of Inch Levels, Robert goes to confession seeking to offload his myriad crimes. 

He thinks of his mother-in-law, “harsh and hard and filled with secrets. Whose approval should have meant something to him: but that had never been given.” 

That things might have been so different had she been warmer to the Englishman seems farfetched.

All the while Patrick remains in hospital. It’s a convenient story device, though one done almost impeccably by Elizabeth Strout in My Name is Lucy Barton. 

The perspectives shift so often, and with stories retold and relived across so many years, that Patrick is often forgotten.

A little more authorial control wouldn’t have gone amiss but ultimately, Inch Levels is an engrossing and enticing tale weaved together by Hegarty — the author of the authorised biography of David Frost and of The Story of Ireland — that will leave the reader wholly satisfied.


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